It was one of those glorious sunny days that made this autumn a bit of a bonus after the non-summer. Blue skies and mild air is almost magical weather in Ireland. I’d arranged to meet Elaine Normile for a trip to Longford. You may know Elaine as the girl in ’The Restaurant’ who gives it a touch of glamour. We’d been filming in the Wineport Lodge, so from there to Longford but was but a hop and a skip of less than an hour. As we drove through Ballymahon the countryside looked resplendent in its autumnal colours and all felt right with the world.
We were off to ’Aubergine’, a restaurant in Longford Town that has figured largely in my postbag of late, many readers telling me that it would be well worth a visit. I was in Longford earlier this year when Brenda O’Donoghue and I were on the road looking for the best chips in Ireland for Derek Mooney‘s show. Back then only chips were on the agenda and we were there to check out ‘Luigi’s’, which has been serving good chips for years. I probably walked right past Aubergine then, because if you weren’t actively looking for it, you could easily pass it by.
It’s unprepossessing from the outside, it’s in fact just a doorway that opens onto stairs leading you up to the first-floor restaurant. The doorway is, however, emblazoned with plaques from a variety of guides, all of whom appear to have found Aubergine before me. The sight of all those plaques did raise my spirits a bit as we made our way up the stairs.
At the landing you have a choice: there are low tables with armchairs and sofas to the left, or simple dining tables and chairs to the right with some booths further down the room. Right in front you is a blackboard with the day’s menu. The most remarkable thing about this menu are the prices. I kept looking in disbelief. There was nothing on the menu that cost more than €9.50. My first thoughts were that Aubergine only offered snacks, hence the prices, but as I read through the menu it became clear that these were meals, just not at prices we’re used to on the east coast.
Starting at €3.50 for the soup of the day, the other dishes ranged from €6.50 to €9.50. Here’s the sort of thing on offer - a Greek salad, a duck leg confit, lemon and garlic chicken, a mild chicken curry, a steak sandwich on ciabatta, a vegetable lasagna, ziti (pasta) with baked beef and an Asian spiced salmon. All of these come with a salad and wedge potatoes. No wonder the place was packed.
I asked for the wine list, which was longer than I was expecting, given that Aubergine calls itself a café. A couple of pages of very well priced wines confronted me and I found a half bottle of Château Rian, a white Bordeaux listed at €11.75. I’ve long believed that probably the best value wines from France these days are the white Bordeaux wines, since it’s a region that specialises in expensive reds. It’s whites have traditionally been an afterthought, but there are producers now making crisp, clean whites from Sauvignon and Semillon that really appeal to our modern palate. This was one of those, a well made wine that gave us each a glass and a half.
Only quarter bottles of mineral water were available, which I really dislike. Water at the table isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, and selling it in tiny bottles makes it expensive. At €2.55 for a quarter bottle you end up spending €10.20 a litre, which is crazy. I ordered just one for Elaine and iced tap water for me.
We decided that Elaine would have a main course and a dessert, and I’d have a starter and a main course, so our order was fish pie and rhubarb crumble for Elaine and soup followed by shepherd’s pie for me. The soup that day was a white bean soup and it was truly delicious. It was flavoured with smoked bacon lardons and a herb oil and the flavours were perfectly balanced. Definitely a good start.
Both the pies we’d ordered were €9.50, so we were pushing the boat out here. They presented well and Elaine was delighted to find her fish pie wasn’t dominated by salmon, which is so often the case. It was a wetter pie than she’d have liked, under the mash topping it was a bit sloppy. As I tucked into mine I found a similar wetness. It’s perhaps a personal caprice, but I do prefer the minced lamb to be moist rather than wet. Despite this, the flavours of both were very good and we both made inroads into our plates, but the portions were large and we ended up leaving some pie and most of our salad and wedges.
The service throughout this meal was excellent and I was really impressed when I’d finished by glass of water another arrived without me having to ask for it. That’s what real waiters do, they pre-empt your needs.
Elaine got her rhubarb and strawberry crumble which she liked, but did add the rider ‘it’s not as good as my mum’s.’ After that we ordered an espresso each and I crossed my fingers. And you know what? We got two good espressos, complete with a crema on top. There’s plenty of cafes and restaurants in Dublin who could learn from Aubergine how to make an espresso. So we ordered two more.
Our bill came to just under €50, of which more than €22 was drinks, so €27 had bought us two courses each - great value.